While Rotten Tomatoes can serve as a good general thumbs up/thumbs down when it comes to seeing a movie, there are some movies that don’t get their deserved praise or criticism through this rating system. It is rather arbitrary, after all. Assigning a general “fresh” or “rotten” score strips an experience of its nuance and unless a critic who is being scored this way absolutely loves or hates a film, it is rarely that unsubtle. Thus, underrated movies are damned and overrated movies perpetuate the hype machine. I find that some of my favorite films are merely positive shrugs according to Rotten Tomatoes, so I’ll explore that further in this series.
This week brings the release of one of the year’s most anticipated films, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar, which currently sits at a decent but unremarkable 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. I remain unphased and optimistic, given my historical disagreement with RT’s treatment of previous Nolan works. Here are my favorite Nolan flicks, best to worst, along with their corresponding score on Rotten Tomatoes.
1. The Prestige (76% on Rotten Tomatoes)
I pined over which film would top this list since The Prestige and Inception could possibly be in my Top 25 of All Time. There’s just something simultaneously intimate and grand about The Prestige that makes it riveting from moment to moment, a very clever thriller that obviously presents itself as a magic trick and still dazzles even after you know how the trick is done. Phenomenal performances by both Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, supported by the likes of Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, and none other than David Bowie, catapult brother Jonathan Nolan’s smart script to make The Prestige purely inspired filmmaking. Yet, it is a mediocre 74% on RT. For shame!
2. Inception (86% of Rotten Tomatoes)
Movies like Inception are rare, and there’s a reason for why Christopher Nolan had to make this after The Dark Knight trilogy. High-concept blockbusters like Inception cost a fortune to make and require bankable talent (director included) to hedge against in the event that the moviegoing public just doesn’t get it. Luckily, Inception is a beautiful, brilliant work that gets better with each viewing. It explores emotional and personal ideas about our subconscious in ways that few movies have (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind being another favorite of mine), but Inception stands out in presenting these ideas within the structure of a heist movie. Leonardo DiCaprio is stellar as usual, Marion Cotillard is great too, with notable performances by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, and Michael Caine, I could go on. The action set pieces are utterly fantastic and extremely well choreographed; the entire movie just feels expertly orchestrated. If it weren’t so well known, I probably would have given Inception the nod over The Prestige.
3. The Dark Knight (94% on Rotten Tomatoes)
What is there left to say about the tour de force that was Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight? The script and film itself were very good, but Ledger’s performance (and untimely passing) cemented The Dark Knight as a touchstone in pop culture history. Similar to the performance scenes in The Prestige, there’s a tension and danger present every time The Joker is on screen in The Dark Knight. It’s palpable; that unforgettable, edge-of-your-seat experience that hits its mark several times throughout the film. How ironic that it was Ledger’s casting as The Joker that had fans so up in arms, as it’s ultimately what started the Nolan hype machine the even bigger spectacle, The Dark Knight Rises, succumbed to.
4. Memento (92% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Memento‘s notoriety is much owed to its nonlinear storytelling structure (or reverse linear, if you will), but this film has more to offer beyond that gimmick. Putting the audience on the same discovery path as the protagonist as the film makes its way back in time is truly compelling stuff, especially for a revenge movie. Add to that Guy Pierce, who can range from naive to bloodthirsty at the drop of a hat, and devious friends in Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano, and Memento makes for one manic roller coaster ride. Even more kudos to Christopher Nolan for this being his first major feature.
5. Batman Begins (85% on Rotten Tomatoes)
After the success of The Dark Knight, many seemed to forget how good the original “gritty realism” take on the superhero movie was. In Batman Begins, we got an interesting origin story that we hadn’t heard a billion times before, a new and promising caped crusader in Christian Bale, and a operatic showdown with worthy villains that would satisfy fans of the comic. What’s even more amazing was Bale’s body transformation, gaining a ridiculous amount of muscle for the role after playing an unhealthily skinny insomniac in The Machinist the prior year. In the shadow of its bigger sequels, Batman Begins is underrated.
6. The Dark Knight Rises (88% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Some people really liked the finale to Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. I understand that I’m in the minority that thought it was just above average. But despite its huge set pieces, Tom Hardy’s valiant effort to do something scary and original, and the more-of-a-good-thing mentality, TDKR just feels like an empty action movie shrouded in a tired “we fall down so we can get back up” ideology. It felt like Nolan’s mind was already occupied with the big ideas he had for Interstellar and he was just making this last Batman flick to fulfill an obligation. Nolan’s been criticized for cold, technical filmmaking, which I don’t always agree with, but it’s certainly valid here. I wanted to like TDKR, and did enjoy it to an extent, but it was a bloated experience that I have no issue ranking toward the bottom of Nolan’s filmography.
7. Insomnia (92% on Rotten Tomatoes)
Defenders will call Insomnia Christopher Nolan’s most underrated movie and at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems to be a critic’s darling. I respect differing opinions, but I just don’t get the following behind this one. Sure, Nolan does a great job of making me feel exhausted in his bleak if ever-bright Alaskan setting for a murder mystery, but I didn’t quite buy Pacino’s internally conflicted performance and if I want Robin Williams (RIP) playing against type as a sociopath, I’ll go with One Hour Photo any day over this one.
8. Following (78% on Rotten Tomatoes)
To be fair, Following isn’t Christopher Nolan’s worst movie so much as it is his most simple and therefore most easily unimpressive in comparison to his multi-million-dollar entries. What is impressive, however, is that Nolan managed to get me to watch what is essentially a 70-minute student film, comprised largely of one-on-one conversations, without falling asleep. In all fairness, Following presents some interesting thoughts, even if they’re gilded and pretentious.
Regardless of the discrepancies between my thoughts and Rotten Tomatoes, one thing is clear: Christopher Nolan is a gifted filmmaker who is at his best when he’s free to explore his own original and complex ideas. How does my ranking differ from yours?